GREENBURGH, N.Y. – Just one week ago, the New York Rangers anxiously waited through a long Saturday to find out if they would get into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Now that they have made it, the Rangers are anxiously waiting for their offence to show up and keep them in the post-season a little longer.
Through two games of the first-round Eastern Conference series with the Washington Capitals, New York has only one goal in a pair of losses. Of the 47 shots the Rangers have managed to get through the clogging Washington defence, 46 have been stopped by, so far, unflappable goalie Michal Neuvirth.
Washington also has blocked 53 shots that haven’t even reached Neuvirth. If things don’t change quickly Sunday when the best-of-seven series shifts to Madison Square Garden for Game 3, the Rangers’ return to the playoffs after a one-year absence could be a short one.
“We just need to have that mindset of bringing it to the net,” forward Brandon Dubinsky said Saturday. “Rather than cycling ourselves to death, we’ve just got to make sure we’re trying to create chances and funnel everything to the (crease) and trying to get in this guy’s face. He’s a young guy and we’ve got to try to put more pressure on him.”
It is a nice novelty for the Capitals that they don’t have to wonder game to game who will be in goal.
The 23-year-old Neuvirth emerged from a three-headed goalie group that also featured youngsters Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby, and earned the nod in the playoffs—for now.
Neuvirth won five of his last six regular-season starts to finish 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average. He allowed a goal to Rangers defenceman Matt Gilroy in the third period of the series-opening 2-1 overtime victory Wednesday night and was perfect in winning 2-0 in Game 2 on Friday night.
Facing the Rangers in what should be a fired-up Garden on Sunday afternoon will surely be a whole new test.
“He’s been what we’ve expected,” said Karl Alzner, Washington’s 22-year-old defenceman. “He makes all the saves he needs to make—the basic ones—and then surprises guys and makes one he’s not expected to. That’s what you need if you’re going to win.”
And if he has a hiccup or two, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau likely won’t wait long to make a switch.
Two years ago, when the Capitals rallied from a 3-1 series hole to eliminate the Rangers in seven games, Boudreau yanked ineffective veteran Jose Theodore after a poor showing in Game 1 and went to the unproven and unknown Varlamov the rest of the way.
But that is in the past, and it is hardly the only version of the past that the Capitals and Rangers are looking to run from.
Five times the Capitals have led a series 2-0, and four times they failed to advance. On the flip side, the Rangers have recovered from a 2-0 hole to win only once. So something has to give.
Washington led Pittsburgh 2-0 in the first round of the 2009 playoffs before falling, and then blew a 3-1 edge against No. 8 Montreal a year ago in an opening-round upset after a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season.
“We know the third win is probably the most important win,” Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said. “For them, it’s going to be a very important game. For us, the same. Every game with us is important, you (can’t) relax.”
The Rangers returned home from Washington in the early hours Saturday after a train ride from the nation’s capital. They were on the ice for about 30 minutes in the afternoon and claimed to be ready to hit the Garden ice with a chance to get back in the series in front of their fans.
“They’re going to come out with a very strong effort, use the momentum, the energy of the crowd,” Capitals forward Mike Knuble said. “It will be absolutely crazy in there the first five, 10 minutes. It will be up to us to be as equally stingy and maybe try and take some of the momentum back by making them play in their own end.
“Ultimately you haven’t accomplished anything. You’ve gotten a lead in this series, but nothing is settled, it’s still up for grabs. They still have three home games possibly.”
With a young roster that features many first-time participants in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Rangers captain Chris Drury took it upon himself to remind his teammates that nothing is lost yet. There is no time or place for doubt or frustration.
“We already talked about that this morning,” Drury said, “one game and momentum shifts in a playoff series. They’re the number one seed, they have a ton of talent up front, on the back end, in net. They did their job at home, now it’s up to us to respond in the proper way and take care of things in our building.
“In Game 2 we played a better game, we played harder. We know we’re going to have to continue to grind it out. It would certainly be nice to get one early for our fans.”
Rangers coach John Tortorella hinted he might shake up the lines and shift players on the power play that has failed on 30 of 31 chances, dating to the final nine games of the regular season.
New York has had only four power-play opportunities—two in each game—and will need special teams to provide a surge that has been missing. Even if the unit doesn’t score, it has to at least give the club a lift.
“Let’s face it, it’s not working, and we’re going to try some different things,” Tortorella said. “Your power play is always a little microcosm of what your offence is. We’re struggling there. It can create momentum for you or hurt you.”